WASHINGTON - A Republican senator and tea party favorite from Kentucky used an old-style filibuster lasting nearly 13 hours to take control of the chamber and block Senate confirmation of John Brennan's nomination to be CIA director.
Sen. Rand Paul ended his filibuster Thursday shortly after midnight, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also a Kentucky Republican, said he would continue to oppose Brennan's confirmation and resist ending the debate on President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the spy agency.
Paul's performance, which centered on questions about the possible use of drones against targets in the United States, clearly energized a number of his GOP colleagues, who came to the floor in a show of support and to share in the speaking duties. And even as the night progressed, Paul appeared invigorated despite being on his feet for so long. Actual talking filibusters have become rare in the Senate, where the rules are typically used in procedural ways to block the other party's agenda.
Paul, a critic of Obama's drone policy, started just before noon Wednesday by demanding the president or Attorney General Eric Holder issue a statement assuring that the aircraft would not be used in the United States to kill terrorism suspects who are U.S. citizens. But by the time he left the Senate floor, Paul said he'd received no response.
Paul wasn't picky about the format, saying at one point he'd be happy with a telegram or a Tweet. Paul said he recognized he can't stop Brennan from being confirmed. But the nomination was the right vehicle for a debate over what the Obama White House believes are the limits of the federal government's ability to conduct lethal operations against suspected terrorists, he said.
"No president has the right to say he is judge, jury and executioner," Paul said.
The Obama administration has said it has not conducted such operations inside U.S. borders nor does it intend to. Paul and backers said that wasn't good enough. They wanted the White House to rule out the possibility of them happening altogether.
About a dozen of Paul's colleagues who share his conservative views came to the floor to take turns speaking for him and trading questions. McConnell congratulated Paul for his "tenacity and for his conviction," and he called Brennan a "controversial nominee."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, read Twitter messages from people eager to "Stand With Rand." The Twitterverse, said Cruz, is "blowing up." And as the night went on, Cruz spoke for longer periods as Paul leaned against a desk across the floor. Cruz, an insurgent Republican with strong tea party backing, read passages from Shakespeare's "Henry V" and lines from the 1970 movie "Patton," starring George C. Scott.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., made references to rappers Jay-Z and Wiz Khalifa. Rubio, a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2016, chided the White House for failing to respond to Paul. "It's not a Republican question. It's not a conservative question," Rubio said. "It's a constitutional question."
Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and red tie, Paul read from notebooks filled with articles about the expanded use of the unmanned weapons that have become the centerpiece of the Obama administration's campaign against al-Qaida suspects overseas. As he moved about the Senate floor, aides brought him glasses of water, which he barely touched. Senate rules say a senator has to remain on the floor to continue to hold it, even though he can yield to another senator for a question.
Not all Republicans were as enthusiastic about Paul's performance. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the prospect of drones being used to kill people in the United States was "ridiculous" and he called the debate "paranoia between libertarians and the hard left that is unjustified."
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, echoed Graham. He said it is unconstitutional for the U.S. military or intelligence agencies to conduct lethal counterterrorism operations in the United States against U.S. citizens. Suggesting they can or might, Rogers said, "provokes needless fear and detracts attention from the real threats facing the country."
Paul, who is the son of former Texas congressman and libertarian leader Ron Paul, offered at one point during the filibuster to allow a vote on Brennan if the Senate would vote on his resolution stating that the use of the unmanned, armed aircraft on U.S. soil against American citizens violates the Constitution. Democrats rejected the offer.
Along with Cruz, Rubio and McConnell, other Republican senators who joined Paul on the floor included Mike Lee of Utah, Jerry Moran of Kansas, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Tim Scott of South Carolina, John Thune of South Dakota and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also made an appearance. Wyden has long pressed for greater oversight of the use of drones.
Holder came close to making the statement Paul wanted earlier Wednesday during an exchange with Cruz at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, according to Paul.
Cruz asked Holder if the Constitution allowed the federal government to kill on U.S. soil a U.S. citizen who doesn't pose an imminent threat. Holder said the situation was hypothetical, but he did not think that in that situation the use of a drone or lethal force would be appropriate. Cruz criticized Holder for not simply saying "no" in response.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Paul, Brennan said the CIA does not have authority to conduct lethal operations inside the U.S.
Holder told Paul in a March 4 letter that the federal government has not conducted such operations and has no intention of doing so. But Holder also wrote that he supposed it was possible under an "extraordinary circumstance" that the president would have no choice but to authorize the military to use lethal force inside U.S. borders. Holder cited the attacks at Pearl Harbor and on Sept. 11, 2001, as examples.
Paul said he did not dispute that the president has the authority to take swift and lethal action against an enemy who carried out a significant attack against the United States. But Paul said he was "alarmed" at how difficult it has been to get the administration to clearly define what qualifies as a legitimate target of a drone strike.
The record for the longest individual speech on the Senate floor belongs to former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Paul ended his lengthy speech with a joke. He said that he was tempted to go another 12 hours and try to break Thurmond's record, but he needed to use the bathroom.
"I discovered that there are some limits to filibustering and I'm going to have to go and take care of one of those in a few minutes," Paul said.
Brennan's nomination won approval Tuesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee after the White House broke a lengthy impasse by agreeing to give lawmakers access to top-secret legal opinions justifying the use of lethal drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects overseas.
If confirmed, Brennan would replace Michael Morell, the CIA's deputy director who has been acting director since David Petraeus resigned in November after acknowledging an affair with his biographer.
Brennan currently serves as Obama's top counterterrorism adviser in the White House. He was nominated for the CIA post by the president in early January.